Ideas

How our genes help build good societies: Nicholas Christakis

In a new book, Yale sociologist and physician Nicholas A. Christakis says our genes influence not only who we are, but also what our society can be. The physician and sociologist says we carry within us the "proclivities to make a good society” and points to many laudable features that humans have inherited from natural selection.

'Biology has shaped our capacity for social life,' says Yale sociologist and physician

'We each carry within us an evolutionary blueprint for making a good society,' says Yale Sterling Professor Nicholas Christakis in his book, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of A Good Society. (Little, Brown and Company)
Listen to the full episode53:58

We humans carry within us genes that help write a blueprint for a better world according to Nicholas Christakis. He argues that our genes help create societies, that are for the most part, intrinsically similar and good.

"Our genes shape our bodies. Our genes shape our behaviours. And I argue that our genes also affect the structure and function of our societies," says the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale University. 

Our good deeds are not just the products of Enlightenment values. They have a deeper and prehistoric origin.- Nicholas Christakis

The physician and world-renowned social scientist contends that genes influence not only who we are as individuals but serve a greater purpose for humanity as a whole, adding there's scientific research that supports his thesis.

"I think there's no sounder footing for the social sciences than biology," Christakis tells IDEAS producer Mary Lynk.

"If you begin to take seriously the way biology has shaped our capacity for social life, you can not only make important discoveries, you can sort of break down these borders between these fields."

In his book, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of A Good Society, Christakis probes how our genes affect not only our bodies and behaviour but the creation of good societies — despite a long history steeped in violence.

World-renowned social scientist and physician Nicholas Christakis says the scientific community has been overly focused on the dark side of our biological heritage. He writes in his book, 'the bright side has been denied the attention it deserves.' (Jim Young/Reuters)

Seeing the good in bad times

Christakis notes that for too long, scientists have focused on the dark side of our biological heritage. He proposes that natural selection has also given us a suite of beneficial social features.

Instead of only focusing on our capacity for aggression, cruelty, prejudice and self-interest, Christakis asserts that we also carry innate proclivities for learning, cooperation, friendship and love. 

'I would say they are as instrumental as the bodies we make.' 0:39

As a director at the Human Nature Lab at Yale University, Christakis works with approximately 20 academics, from both the social  and biological sciences.

This unique combination of academics helps break down the historic barrier between these two branches of science.

"There's a whole philosophical tradition going back to Plato, but in terms of the university organization, this [division] is a result of medieval theologians, who saw human beings as separate from the rest of the natural world … but of course, humans are just animals," says Christakis.

Excerpt From Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society:

A Blueprint for a Good Society  

Where does this cross-cultural similarity come from? How can people be so different from — even go to war with — one another and yet also be so similar? The fundamental reason is that we each carry within us an evolutionary blueprint for making a good society. 

Genes do amazing things inside our bodies, but even more amazing to me is what they do outside of them. Genes affect not only the structure and function of our bodies; not only the structure and function of our minds and, hence, our behaviors; but also the structure and function of our societies. This is what we recognize when we look at people around the world. This is the source of our common humanity. 

Natural selection has shaped our lives as social animals, guiding the evolution of what I call a "social suite" of features priming our capacity for love, friendship, cooperation, learning, and even our ability to recognize the uniqueness of other individuals. Despite all the trappings and artifacts of modern invention — our tools, agriculture, cities, nations — we carry within us innate proclivities that reflect our natural social state, a state that is, as it turns out, primarily good, practically and even morally. Humans can no more make a society that is inconsistent with these positive urges than ants can suddenly make beehives. 

I believe that we come to this sort of goodness just as naturally as we come to our bloodier inclinations. We cannot help it. We feel great when we help others. Our good deeds are not just the products of Enlightenment values. They have a deeper and prehistoric origin. The ancient tendencies that form the social suite work together to bind communities, specify their boundaries, identify their members, and allow people to achieve individual and collective objectives while at the same time minimizing hatred and violence. For too long, in my opinion, the scientific community has been overly focused on the dark side of our biological heritage: our capacity for tribalism, violence, selfishness, and cruelty. The bright side has been denied the attention it deserves.

Excerpted from BLUEPRINT Copyright © 2019 by Nicholas Christakis.
Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York.  All rights reserved.


Further Reading:

  • Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, Nicholas A. Christakis, Little, Brown and Company, 2019
  • Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler, Little, Brown and Company, 2011
  • Death Foretold: Prophecy and Prognosis in Medical Care, The University of Chicago Press, Nicholas A. Christakis, 1999.
     


** This episode was produced by Mary Lynk.